“Magic is something we have been delighted, entertained and terrified by for thousands of years: it demands our attention,” Maev Kennedy, special writer for The Guardian, challenges the audience of last night's Drawing Room Discussion to disagree. 

For most of us there we don’t need convincing of the importance of this subject, but we all nod along with the sentiment. Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, magic has fallen from grace and never quite picked itself up again. Of course, as the audience were about to find out, there were practitioners of magic afterwards but they were often regarded as tricksters, con-artists or meddling in dark affairs, which people still related to demons. More often than not magic was disregarded as children’s entertainment. Today as we watch the hordes of muggles take pictures outside Kings Cross Station by a statue of a trolley rammed into a wall, it is understandable why academics have for a long time dismissed magic as a topic of childish fantasy and not worth the same amount of time and dedication as studies into other subjects such as WWI, Shakespeare or Caravaggio.

The Drawing Room Discussion on Magic erased any doubts the audience might have had about magic not being a serious subject to study and discuss. Eileen Goulding, Egyptologist, author and lecturer specialising in the pharaohs and people of Ancient Egypt, has a keen interest in the myths and legends of the ancient world, which shone through with her brief but thorough run down of how magic was a part of everyday life for Egyptians. Medicine, for example, was an equal mix of what we as a modern audience might describe as Western medicine and magic. Eileen showed one example where women taking contraceptives would eat honey mixed with crocodile dung, which modern doctors have confirmed would have worked due to the acidic qualities in the dung and the antibiotic qualities in honey. Mixed with this, they would have said spells and their doctors would have often worn masks representing Hex, the God of Magic. However, as Eileen was keen to point out, magic bled into every aspect of their lives from love spells to the rituals for their dead.

Taking us back to England and shooting forward to the 18th century, Stella Lyons, an Art History lecturer who runs her own courses, took a look at the representation of magic in artwork, specifically the work of Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright of Derby was an English landscape and portrait painter, notable for his use of chiaroscuro effect, which has often led him to be called the English version of Caravaggio. More interestingly though for this discussion, was his membership of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists and industrialists who contributed to the Enlightenment movement. His works are esoteric in nature, portraying scientific discoveries as a mix of religious and supernatural wonder, meaning he was able to stay below the radar of the Church, whilst also clearly stipulating his opinions on science and religion.

We ended the night with an unusual discussion on Charles Dickins, presented by Ian Keeble, our professional magician for the evening. Ian took us through how during the Victorian era, the battle Wright of Derby fought to ensure science overcame the chains of religion and the supernatural. Dickins himself believed that magicians were tricksters and their conjuring was nothing more than a way to fool the less enlightened. However, on one fateful day, Dickins reversed his opinions and saw the wonder and extreme skill behind these tricks and tried his own hand at magic.

Ian then treated us to a demonstration of two of the tricks that Dickins himself would have performed during his conjuring phase, a delightful end to a wonderful evening.

Last night was the first of ROSL ARTS’ new series in partnership with The Arts Society. These discussions will offer unique insights into more unusual subjects and will all be hosted by Maev Kennedy. The event series offers a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the interests and passions of the cultural figures that inspire you, by better understanding the topics that inspire them. Look out for the next instalment in the new year.


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